I met Joe on an Internet political discussion board. He was as far to the right as I was to the left. He was retired military, corporate, and married. I was non-profit, arts, and not married. He was religious; I wanted nothing to do with religion. I had a few years on him and was winding down. He was on the way up. The only things we seemed to have in common were that we enjoyed one another's personalities, and we each had an eleven-year-old. His was the oldest child and male; mine was the baby of the family and female.
After getting to know one another's political voices and views, a number of us from the discussion board formed an email loop where we discussed non-political topics and developed personal friendships. Eventually we exchanged phone numbers, real names, and pictures. Many of us traveled to meet one another, individually and in groups. We shared the births of children and grandchildren, celebrated graduations and marriages, and offered support when needed. We mourned together when one of our friends died.
Joe and I extended our friendship beyond the email loop. We chatted via instant message as we went through the boards and our email messages each night. We laughed and we complained, about his job, my health, our families, television, weather, social issues, people on the internet. We talked for years.
Our eleven-year-olds also communicated through instant message and email. They talked on the phone occasionally but Joe and I did not. He lost most of his hearing in the service and wasn't comfortable on the phone. However, I did talk with Joe's wife, Sue. She called often. A few times, Joe yelled, "Hi, Sandy," from across the room. Once in a great while, Sue participated on the boards but didn't enjoy communicating in larger groups the way we did. She preferred brief, private email messages to fill me in on family matters, and the telephone for chatting.
Joe and I drifted a little when our favorite message board closed, and a little more when Sue went into a treatment center. His computer time disappeared when he took on full responsibility for the children and the home. When Sue came home, he didn't come back to the computer. I missed him but thought it was probably best for his family. I spoke with Sue a few times after she got out of treatment, but mostly kept up through their son and my daughter, who did not drift apart.
The kids are adults now. After ten years, they recently decided it was time to meet in person. He would come here, so I could meet him too. While they worked on plans, she came phone in hand to me, and said they had some creepy news. I braced myself, unable to imagine what news could possibly be creepy.
Joe's name is not really Joe. His name is Bill. Not so creepy.
Sue's name is really Carol. Maybe a little strange, since we had spoken on the phone and I actually called her Sue. But not creepy.
Joe/Bill did not spend time on the computer. Sue/Carol had communicated her husband's position, in his voice and name, on political message boards. Okay. That is weird but it still takes more than this to creep me. Gender would only matter in a romantic relationship and my friendship with Joe/Bill/Sue/Carol was platonic. Gender didn't change a thing and everything else this person had represented was true . Joe is a right leaning, ex-military, hearing-impaired, corporate worker married to Sue, who birthed two sons and went into treatment twice while I knew her. Their marriage suffered the bumps that Joe/Sue ran by me for "female input".
I have friends who don't understand why I don't feel betrayed and how I can have no hard feelings toward Sue. A few lectured me on the dangers of Internet relationships and not knowing who is on the other side of the screen.
This experience and comments from friends forced me to examine my Internet friendships. In the bigger picture, I decided that Joe/Sue was probably more honest than many other people I've met on the Internet. Sue's name changed while everything else remained the same. I've met other people whose names stay the same while their opinions change from one thread to the next and their values depend on who is watching and how it will affect their popularity.
I think I could visit Sue tomorrow and trust her opinions and history to be what I know. I remember watching Joe/Sue in instant message, email, and public, and appreciating the consistency of his personality, character, opinions, and stories. That matters more to me than the name or gender. Joe/Sue expected me to challenge him/her when s/he tried to slip in a Drudge report, or e-mail propaganda that Snopes had already disproved; I knew to expect him to pay me back by challenging any information I brought into the discussion. Our friendship survived challenge and debate every time. I respect that. Joe/Bill never put me in an uncomfortable position by encouraging the women who flirted with him on the boards and in the email loop, and I didn't say anything to Joe that would have hurt Sue. (Good thing, huh?) Our friendship was safe, for everyone concerned. If I had to give up some of that friendship, I'm glad it was names and not values.
My experience is innocuous since my Internet relationships are platonic. I'm curious to know if the Joe/Sue discovery seems creepy to others, and to know how many look for the same character in Internet friends that they look for in other friends.